Brian Williams’ mistake was not misremembering a helicopter ride in Iraq. It was trusting his memory of that event … and we can all learn from that. (More)

Memory Lane, Part III: Fact-Checking Our Memories (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature explores the science of memory. Thursday we began with the response to Brian Williams false stories about Iraq. Yesterday we saw how false memories are created and reinforced, and how that happens to all of us. Today we conclude with how to fact-check our memories, and why we should.

“You are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong

A whole lot of people are outraged at Brian Williams over his changing story about that helicopter flight in Iraq. Journalist Carmen Gentile seethed over Williams’ “stolen valor” and countless pundits have demanded he be fired. Conservatives at Twitchy sneered at the notion of false memories, and Glenn Beck says false memory is nothing more than an excuse that elites use to defend each other. And at Forbes, Faye Flam says the science of memory is irrelevant and we can understand Williams with “blowhardology”:

But this explanation doesn’t sit right with Williams because our disillusionment with him isn’t really about memory. We can accept the experimental evidence that memory is fragmented and subject to distortion, but nevertheless, we realize that some of us manage to go through life without being insufferable blowhards.

I’m sure she felt good when she wrote that. David Brin has written at length about righteous indignation and the emotional rush we get from moral superiority:

We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported – even promulgated – by messages in mass media.

While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even … well … addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.

Given a choice of – (a) the pleasurable rush of righteous indignation over Williams’ ‘lie’; or, (b) the uneasy feeling that our own memories may be unreliable – it’s hardly surprising that most people prefer the former. And as we saw with Jonathan Haidt’s research, moral judgments begin as unconscious, emotional reactions … which we then rationalize with conscious analysis.

“Claims of false memory should no longer earn anyone a free pass”

Writing at Slate, pychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons – co-authors of The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us – make a bolder but more reasonable argument:

For years, Brian Williams told various versions of a story about his experiences during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003. Last week, he admitted he had gotten crucial facts wrong, and he apologized. It’s possible that Williams was lying all along for self-aggrandizing reasons, but his serial misstatements could also be the product of ordinary, unintentional memory distortion. We may never know which is true. But the scientific evidence for the fallibility of human memory is now so well established and widespread that claims of false memory should no longer earn anyone a free pass. Any responsible storytellers – any who believe they owe their first allegiance to the truth – should recognize the limits of their own memory and the risk of self-serving memory distortions. We must all change the way we work to ensure that we get the facts right, knowing that our memories might be wrong.
After decades of well-documented, prominent cases of memory distortion, people whose professions put a premium on facts and truth – journalists, politicians, business leaders, judges, lawyers, and public figures – should be aware of these limits. In fact, they have a responsibility to understand the fallibility of their memories and to take steps to minimize memory mistakes. If you are relying exclusively on your own memory when saying anything of consequence, especially when someone’s reputation is at stake, you must think twice.

Simply, Williams’ mistake was not misremembering that helicopter flight. His mistake was trusting his memory.

“All 16 experts disagreed”

In 2011, Chabris and Simons commissioned a survey on Americans’ understanding of memory. The results were not encouraging:

Video Memory: 63.0% agreed that “human memory works like a video camera, accurately recording the events we see and hear so that we can review and inspect them later.” All 16 experts disagreed

They also found that almost half of Americans believe our memories, once formed, do not change. All but one of the experts they surveyed disagreed; the other replied “don’t know/unclear.” In other words, people who study human memory recognize that, in psychologist Elizabeth Loftus’ words, “memory is suggestive, it’s subjective, it’s malleable.”

“These steps can help”

Chabris and Simons want the rest of us to acknowledge that reality, and act on that knowledge:

[W]e know enough about how easily and often memory is distorted to give some tips for minimizing the chances that false recollections will put you at odds with your audience, your bosses, or the truth. No checklist will eliminate all errors, but these steps can help:

  1. Don’t confuse memories with facts – If your only source is your memory, admit that the best you can say is “This is how I remember it.”
  2. Don’t think “but this memory is different” – Intuition tells us that shocking or stressful events should produce vivid memories. (Think: “Where were you on 9/11?”) But we’re more likely to retell these events often, and each repetition offers an opportunity for distortion.
  3. Remember that you are not so important – We all like to feel good about ourselves, and that makes us more prone to distort memories of events where we were “the central player.”
  4. Trust, but verify – In stating what a public figure said or did, don’t rely on your memory. Google it and find an original source.
  5. Revisit original sources – In reconstructing a event from your own life, talk to people who shared it. Their memories may differ, and the differences should make you (and them) more cautious.
  6. Use your personal archives – Check your diary or journal, old emails, text messages, tweets, and/or social media posts. Most of us keep better records than we realize.
  7. Document your fact-checking – If you’re writing online, include links. If you’re speaking to a group, specify your sources.
  8. Create more objective records as things happen – Take notes in meetings and ask others at the meeting to check your notes.
  9. Collaborate – Bounce your ideas off someone whom you trust to ask “Umm, how do you know that, exactly?”
  10. Slow down – If you’re writing an article or speech, give yourself time to fact-check.

I’ll add an 11th tip: make fact-checking yourself a habit, not an exception. Before you dash off an email, Facebook response, or tweet, take time to fact-check what you plan to say. You’ll save yourself some embarrassment. You’ll also give yourself time to calm down and ask “Do I really need to reply to this at all?”

Most of all, you’ll get comfortable with the idea that your memory is fallible, and more forgiving of others’ mistakes. That may not feel as good as righteous indignation … but it’s a lot more useful.


Happy Valentine’s Day!